Like many writers I’ve talked with, I’m pretty justice-driven and compassionate, especially when it comes to being mindful of young readers. So, obviously, it really burns my toast that kids, teens, and adults don’t have the opportunity to read books with complex, diverse characters that amount to more than comic relief or sidekicks.
In an effort to listen, learn, and give others a platform to educate, I’m pleased to introduce three avid readers and writers who have graciously agreed to share some of their observations and experiences!
Welcome, Isobel, Charity, and Shondolyn!
Q. Would you like to introduce yourself?
Isobel: I am a fat, loud, smart, occasionally funny, accidentally insightful, bitch of a woman, Pagan, master debater (shut it. I can pun if I want to) who knits to control her OCD, debates on the internets to control her anger management issues, eats to self-medicate for a number of other things and still manages to fall on her face in life regularly. I have opinions; plural, issues; plural and now I have a blog. https://isobeldebrujah.wordpress.com/
Charity: I’m Charity. I’m originally from Chattanooga. I’m a fairly new mom. A wife, a lesbian, a wanderer (spiritually and in other ways), and I especially love to write songs and poems. I’m also a counselor. http://beescsandds.com/ and http://blacksheepconfessions.blogspot.com/ are some places where my writing resides.
Shondolyn: I am Shondolyn. (Autism rights activist, Intactivist, spider aficionado!)
What types of books did you enjoy reading as a kid? Do you have a favorite?
Isobel: I read all the books as a kid. I read the entire Anne of Green Gables series multiple times, the entire Wrinkle in Time series and pretty much anything else I could get my hands on.
Charity: I loved reading fiction books – all kinds. My favorites were Bunnicula, Nancy Drew Files, Chronicles of Narnia, & Abel’s Island. As you can see, I really liked animal centric and fantasy. I think I liked Nancy Drew cause I secretly wanted her and her best friend to become more than friends. (stupid Ned!) 😛
Shondolyn: I loved all kinds of books, especially fantasy or realistic books. Betsy Byars was a favourite alone with Cynthia Voight and a lot of other books
Q. When you were a child, was it easy to find characters that you closely identified with?
Isobel: In terms of finding characters I could identify with, there were several with female protagonists, but all of them where white. I don’t recall a single non-white protagonist that wasn’t also a part of a story about slavery or Jim Crow.
As an adult that keeps happening. There are very few female characters of color and when there are are, they are generally relegated to being the “Sassy Black Friend.” A good example is the novel The Help which is basically just a white savior story. It’s a story wherein Black people are scenery and catalysts for the growth of the main character, but aren’t whole real people in and of themselves. That is a common problem. Either authors write characters of color as if they are white people in paint or they write them as objects or events that move the white main character forward. Both of those tendencies indicate bad writing.
Charity: I identified with the small characters (literally small – mice, rabbits, etc – probably because I was small.) I also really identified with Lucy from Narnia. I think it was her strong imagination, and her stubborn belief.
Q. Can you recall a moment when you felt like an outsider while reading a novel because of stereotypes or lack of diversity? As an adult? How has that impacted you?
Isobel: In the second to last Anne book one of the characters refers to “working like a nigger,” for one of her foster parents. And nobody says anything. It’s totally OK. Even as a child I got that there was a level of acceptable racism in the 1920s but it still hurt me that these characters I loved, were so casually devaluing me.
Charity: I always felt like I wanted more. Hell, I still feel that way as an adult!!! As I got older and was more interested in relationships, I really wanted their to be two girls together. I still long for that. It seems the “best” we get is OITNB, The L Word, etc – which honestly, are really lacking. It’s sad that the very best lesbian characters are often in super off beat movies, and that I can’t think of a single book from childhood, adolescence, or young adulthood with a lesbian or gay character. And the fiction we do get is “segregated.” It’s a “gay novel.” Which is why my wife and I decided I should start writing fiction 😛
Shondolyn: I can’t really think of an example as a kid. I did often want to read more books with black characters and not just white ones. As an adult I found the stereotypes in Orson Scott Card’s Ender books to be VERY IRRITATING. Like, just because someone is Asian does it really mean they want to live in ANCIENT CHINA? It’s a wonder there wasn’t foot binding. All the planets were segregated. It was weird. When I picked up on the subtext it drove me up a tree.
Q. Can you think of an example of a book that handled diverse characters really well?
Isobel: In terms of diverse characters, I would honestly suggest comics. They’ve come a long way in a relatively short time, from Luke Cage in all his “jive turkey,” 1970s trope laden speech to Ultimate Spiderman and the New Blue Beetle who are both Hispanic kids whose culture is a part of their stories. (Blue Beetle does it better than Spiderman.) The John Stewart Green Lantern does a good job too. So does the newest Lantern who is an Arab American, also Ms. Marvel who is an Arab-American female.
Charity: Ok, so this may sound strange – but Harry Potter. The way it handled culture and haters against those without pure blood, squibs, muggles, and the house elves’ predicament. I really really liked it. Even if the differences were imaginary. There was such a sense of social justice. It was refreshing!
Shondolyn: Octavia Butler does a great job of having diverse characters. Like in Xenogenesis there’s characters of all different races and aliens. You get these strong black females interacting with all kinds of races of people. And she didn’t go LOOK I PUT DIVERSE CHARACTERS. She just let them speak for themselves. Same with the Gaea series of John Varley. All these diverse characters, the writer isn’t smug about it. They’re just people interacting with aliens and living their lives. It’s great.
Q. If you could create a homework list for authors wishing to write more diverse characters, what would it be?
Isobel: So there are two ways to fix the problem, depending on whether the author is writing modern fiction or fantasy/sci-fi. Either really study the culture being written about, or create a new culture with the racist tropes generally associated writing “the other,” in mind so as to avoid them. The concept of Native Americans as Noble Savages and Black people as Magical Negros? Nope, totally racist. Bad idea.
Charity: This is the toughest question. I think this is a good start. Just asking questions. I don’t know – I feel like we are too afraid to ask each other questions sometimes, and that we would understand each other better if we would just start really talking. I think other things (other than reading some proflies/biographies, etc) might include writing some short stories. Spend time with people different than you (to avoid caricatures), and maybe even re-think some past characters – imagining how their lives and responses to events would be different if they were LGBT, a different gender, or a different race, religion, abledness, etc.
Shondolyn: I would say read people like Octavia Butler. Read the perspectives of the sort of people you want to write. Listen to what they have to say. Make an EFFORT and remember, your characters, no matter what race they are, ect. are human beings.
That’s a wrap! Thanks so much to the panelists for their time and honesty. x)
Get thee to the keyboard, writers! Be a good student of humanity!